The Unconscious Body

The unconscious mind is an interesting thing. I’ve been thinking about it, and learning about it, lately. What I find interesting is how much power the unconscious has over the conscious. In a way, it’s as if there’s a distinction between “you” and “your brain”. You’ve experienced this. Everyone can think of a time from today where your brain did something you didn’t want it to. Maybe you felt anger over a trivial annoyance. Maybe you succumbed to a junk food craving.

Or maybe you felt like exercising, so you did.

Emotions, desires, cognitive biases, habits. So influential over our decisions; all unconscious thoughts.

There is a lot I could say about this. And, someday, I will. But today I’ll keep it to one topic:

Have you ever thought you learned something… only to find you haven’t?

Of course you have. If you’re lucky, you catch it early. If not, you find when you need it – like during a test or crisis.

(People that enjoyed my Study Skills course can count themselves as lucky ones.)

But what is happening? How can you think you learn something when you haven’t? How is that even possible?

Your conscious mind focuses on what’s in front of it. If you are reading a physics textbook, the physics lies in your conscious mind. As long as it is there, it feels easy to recall.

So, what happens? Eventually, your conscious mind thinks about other things. Like dinner, the past, or a conversation you are having. Since you can only focus on a few things, the physics slips from your mind. Later, your ability to recall the physics depends on one thing:

How well did your unconscious mind understand it?

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Hang on… why does learning depend on the unconscious?

Let’s think about what the conscious versus the unconscious mind. The conscious mind involves focused, deliberate thought. The unconscious mind involves natural, automatic actions.

Think about driving a car. At first, it is a conscious activity. You are concentrating hard, focused on everything you need to do. Chances are, you don’t drive well. But over time it becomes more natural. The process becomes smooth, automatic and skilful. Your conscious mind is so freed up that you can carry on a conversation while driving.

Learning can be thought of as taking conscious actions and making them unconscious. That is when you have learned something.

The role of the unconscious explains why some things are easier than others are. You learn and remember things you enjoy, while struggle to do the same with things you don’t enjoy. How much you – your conscious mind – wants to learn them doesn’t matter. It’s an unconscious process, so the unconscious mind wins.

But what does that have to do with the body?

The body and the unconscious mind are linked. They are bound by subtle, unbreakable threads. Your unconscious mind processes most of your sensory information. Your unconscious mind controls your heart rate, digestion and other organ processes. Your unconscious mind adjusts your balance and posture without you even realising it.

So:

  • If learning is an unconscious activity, and
  • The body is the gateway to the unconscious, then
  • Learning takes place in the body, not just the mind.

A strange thought, I know. How could learning happen in the body? Apart from physical skills like karate or driving a car, I mean.

I could try to persuade you but instead, I will let you persuade yourself. This is an invitation to your unconscious to notice the next time you learn something. Pay attention to the ideas and what affect they have on your body. Then notice how easily you can memorise and learn something.

You don’t have to give this matter any more conscious thought. But if this article does bubble to the front of your mind, think about what it means. Really notice how this has improved your ability to learn. Then, and only then, will you be persuaded of the relevance between the body, the mind and learning.


This post is part of Body Month at Mindwalker Training.